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Bill Williams's War 3icon for Recommended story

by coggywilliam

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Location of story: 
Regensburg German PoW camp and hospital
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Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
09 August 2004

Well perhaps I should go on now to tell you about when Germans came along, they sent a patrol out and we heard them approaching but seeing we were both wounded and just had a 38 revolver between us, resistance was not an option. “Come ,Tommy” they said. I could not raise my arms and shouted “Wounded!” which fortunately is similar to German and was understood. We two were the only survivors of the whole troop. I thought I was fortunate to be taken prisoner by ordinary troops, who in general were quite friendly and no better or worse than the British. Soon an SS Officer appeared, who spoke English, at the same time our Regiment belatedly tried to help us by laying smoke shells to give us cover to escape. The SS Officer insisted they were some sort of signal and threatened to shoot us if we did not answer his questions. He was waving his automatic about, and to me at the time the barrel looked as big as a cannon. I was trying to act the simple soldier who just followed orders and wasn’t privy to such things. I think he would have been delighted to shoot us, but an Austrian senior officer came up and spoke some harsh words in German which I did not understand at that time. The SS Officer gave up rather reluctantly with a curse and this Austrian took us to the first aid and we had a cosy chat with him and some of his men. It transpired he had studied in England and was a good English speaker. He may have hoped to get information I suppose, but his conversation was mainly political, such as why did the Brits fight the Germans etc, and I did a bit of propaganda myself and told him there was plenty more behind me and the war was lost already, that they had missed their chance after Dunkirk.

I was escorted to the field hospital, where I saw the change in relationships between the Italians and the Germans. The Italians were treated with contempt and like an enemy. I was wondering about for a few hours at the camp hospital and speculated at making a break, there were woods which weren’t too far away, but I felt a prickling in the back of my neck and decided against it, or perhaps it was instinct. I was then taken to the Messina Ferry crossing and put in a cattle truck with straw bedding with lots of German wounded — I got the same treatment as them and heading for Germany, which meant the whole length of Italy in a cattle truck. I hadn’t any clothes apart from boots and pants as my shirt had been cut off at the dressing station and it felt a bit cold at night on high ground. When we were near Naples, a German medical officer had the train stopped and went down the train applying dressings as necessary. When he came to me, he thought I needed more treatment and offered to release me into the custody of the Italians. I was given the choice, either go on with the train to Germany or transfer to the local Italian PoW hospital. The doctor pointed to a group of Italians with an ancient looking ambulance. “No thanks” said I. Once again, as it turned out, I made the right decision as the PoWs in that area had a rough time after the Italian surrender.

Eventually, I finished up at Regensburg where they had a POW hospital staffed by French Medicos, mostly Serb and Hungarian. By that time my would was a bit niffy, probably due to the bone splinters getting inflamed and a bit septic and I had some wound fever. After a few days I was sent to a German Military Hospital where I was plastered into one of this “airplane” support frames. The hospital was adjacent to a Messer Schmidt factory and it was not long before we received the attention of the American daylight carpet-bombing. When the alarm went off, the PoW ward, which contained 3 beds, was locked and we heard the planes passing over and thought OK this time, when suddenly there was a noise like an express train followed by a continuous roar of explosions. The hospital shook but was not hit, though glass was everywhere. A Canadian soldier occupied the bed opposite me. When I heard the rush of bombs, I shouted for him to put his pillow over his face to protect himself from splinters of glass. The tension was eased for me by the sight of a pair of big white eyes under the pillow which struck me as funny and gave me a fit of the giggles. We were attended by male nurses who were actually monks. We got a few dirty looks from the civilian cleaning staff when they came to sweep the glass up but no real hostility.

Shortly after, whilst in this hospital, I had either a very vivid dream, or a spiritual experience. I had worried a lot about my crew who had died, especially the gunner whose clothes were on fire and my Troop Officer was after he had taken over from me. There was one night in this military hospital, the lights were on, and yet I saw as clear as day, these three figures in uniform, all looking very happy and smiling, and nodding to me, and apparently speaking, as if to say “don’t you worry, we’re alright, and happy where we are” and I was, as far as I know, awake, which puzzles me greatly. I don’t know if it was hallucination, or whether it was a sub-conscious worry that I had let them down in some way. I remember this so vividly that I can’t make my mind up if it was something supernatural or not.

Anyway, shortly after I returned to the POW hospital, where I was treated by a Doctor LaCrampe, a French doctor and I developed quite a friendship with this fellow. I used to teach him English and he and his colleagues played cards with me every night and gave me bits of food. Of course they got better supplies than we did, so I was quite happy. It transpired that eventually I got an abscess in the upper arm in the site of the wound and he decided he would have to open it out to reduce the fever and drain the puss away. Well unfortunately, the facilities were not very good and they had a very bare minimum of anaesthetics and gear. Anyway, he had me stretched out on this table, with two French medicos and the inevitable German guard. The doctor made some attempt to freeze the pain with ether on the site where he was going to cut. He made two cuts and as he was just about to start, he bent over and said as close to my ear as he could “This is for the honour of the 8th Army”, in other words, don’t make a noise, don’t yell out, don’t give the German guard anything to chortle over, that sort of thing. Anyway, he carried on, and cut two holes. I bear the scars still and probably will of course until my dying day. I will always remember the sight of those long forceps disappearing down one of the holes and coming out the other, and then being withdrawn with a rubber draining tube, pulled through like making a rag carpet, which left the two ends sticking out of the holes. However, it did the trick and successfully drained and it healed up again, so I suppose it was worth it. Anyway, there we are, it was in this hospital that I first contracted bronchitis, due to the severe cold over the year end and insufficient clothing. My souvenir of that winter is a wooden cigarette case carved with a 1944 symbol on a reindeer scene, made by Italian prisoners working for the Germans, made up from scraps of wood, with copper sheet for hinges and bits of plastic for the knobs, probably bits of toothbrush or something. I didn’t enquire how they got the polished effect, I thought perhaps I had better not. I gave them a few cigs for it with a bar of Lux soap, which the Germans loved. I have no doubt the Italians would exchange it for something else in barter.

As soon as I was fit enough, I was moved on to a British POW Camp at Hamelburg. On the way, we stayed over at a transit camp for a couple of days. There was a mixed bag of ethnicity, including some Russians who were treated rather badly I am afraid, as their country had not signed the Geneva Convention which set out the conditions for POW’s to be kept and treated. We organised a few games of chess and managed to communicate. I was told of a Russian who was a first class artist, who would make a small picture with coloured pencils in exchange for a few cigarettes and a packet of biscuits. I had recently received a colour photograph of my wee Anne, which had brought the ooohs and aahhs from the German guard, with typical German sentiment about children. I asked for this to be copied and it was duly produced on apiece of card from a food box. It was certainly a very good likeness; it is now in the possession of the not so wee Anne.

When I arrived at the British section at Hamelburg, I found myself in the company of mostly Australians, New Zealanders, a couple of South Africans and a fare number of Brits. At least it was organised, we were all NCOs and WO’s and there was a senior NCO, who was called “The man of Confidence”, he was elected and his job was to maintain communication between the German Commandant and the POW’s. At least I was given the occasional Red Cross food parcel and fag ration and some clothing. Without the Red Cross parcels we would have been in a bad way, as our daily rations from the German’s consisted of three small spuds boiled in their skins, a slice of black bread which was like sawdust and a blob of margarine. Occasionally, we had a ladle of watery cabbage soup. To be fair, things were getting bad for the civilians at that time. The German’s got desperate for labour on farms and factories and tried to get POW’s to volunteer. No-one fancied getting lynched, so no-one volunteered. As NCO’s, to volunteer to work would have been a court martial offence for assisting the enemy. It just happened one morning when we turned out for what we thought was going to be a head count, we found a line of armed soldiers facing us. The Commandant threatened shooting if we did not volunteer, but still there were no takers. He was visibly hopping mad, perhaps he was under pressure to get some workers and his bluff hadn’t worked. Next thing, we were all marched off to an isolated group of huts without any of our kit, or towels, or cleaning materials. We were refused any washing facilities, confined indoors and threatened with shooting if we broke the curfew. We were given restricted use of the toilets, no Red Cross parcels or fags, so after about three days, the Medical Officer came to check our condition and to ensure there were no infections. When he came to me, he went berserk because it transpired that the Red Cross were coming in a few days to inspect the wounded, and those who were to be repatriated or exchanged. It resulted in all of us getting back to our own huts and privileges; this was in case the Swiss Inspectors reported infringement of the Geneva Convention, which would have resulted in retaliation on the German POW’s in Britain. The poor old Commandant was defeated twice on the trot. While awaiting repatriation, Christmas came and I volunteered to sing for the POW concert. The Aussies favourite in those days was ‘Little Grey Home in the West’, and was really well received. Also, I was a soloist at the carol service with Silent Night, the German guards were all dewy eyed. Shortly afterwards, I was sent off to an assembly point to be repatriated. There were some 2-300 wounded men there, some Yanks, some Commonwealth, some Brits. We were put on a train to Switzerland and at the Frontier crossed simultaneously with the German repatriates. On the journey we had seen some of the devastation caused by the bombing and it was apparent the end was near. As we passed the German train, the German’s showed no animosity with the exception of one big bruiser who was frothing at the mouth and shaking his fist at us — perhaps he had lost family in the bombing or something.

From then on, we were well looked after with the Swiss nurses, until we got to Marseilles, where we were put on a hospital ship run by the Yanks. It was lovely to get a clean bunk and good food. There were lots of sweeties on sale, but unfortunately we didn’t have much money, so I only got a haversack filled to take home. On landing in Liverpool, I was in a batch sent off to Drimmin where my dear Evelyn was able to come and see me. I remember that as if it was yesterday. After a vetting, I was allowed home and my next clear memory is of wee Anne running down the path to meet me. I also remember her eyes as I opened my bag and pulled out all
those sweeties — I don’t think they lasted very long.

Soon, I was formally discharged as unfit for further military service and had to face the rigours of making my way in civilian life, having to make my way from scratch. As so many servicemen found out, winding down from the war was not easy psychologically and one felt at a loss or a loose end but I knew that I had a responsibility to my wife and daughter whom I loved dearly which helped me sort myself out. I had the handicap of disability and in fact the wound in my back was still suppurating. I did find work to suit my disablement but unfortunately, a few months later I was found to have TB which was attributed to the PoW camp. Thankfully, after some years I was finally cured and have had a reasonably quality of life since.

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Message 1 - Bill Williams's War

Posted on: 10 August 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

I have read this story from beginning to end, rivetting stuff! Highly recommended.



Message 2 - Bill Williams's War

Posted on: 10 August 2004 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Coggy -
I can only agree with Peter - this is rivetting stuff - life (?) in a Tank in action - the wounded bit ....and ..not uncommon .. the Spiritual bit which many, particularly Tank Crews experienced - outside of their Tanks ! I offer thanks daily that I was not taken prisioner !
Good luck !

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